Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds
Price: $18.98 | Buy SACD Version Online
Sitting in the Reference System 2 (which was in transition from the old 1266-LSE speakers to the new RBH Sound CinemaSITE speakers - not installed at the time, doh!), Clint sticks in a disc and says, "Take a listen, this is so cool." Suddenly, I'm assaulted by this retro 70's disco electronic stuff . I look over at Clint who, with a huge smile on his face, says, "Awesome, isn't it?" Ack. The 70's. Music inspired by cocaine binges and polyester. I nod my head mumbling something like, "Yeah, it's interesting." A few minutes later and we are back to familiar ground demoing the pod racing scene from Star Wars. "Whew," I thought, "dodged a bullet on that one!" Fast forward a few months and I'm opening the mail and out pops the very same discs with a note from Clint, "See if you like this as much as me." Crap.
Discs are listened to a minimum of twice with at least a 24 hour separation between the listening sessions. During session one, notes are taken on the subjective experience of the implementation of the DTS 96/24 (in this case) along with notes on other features. During session two, the original notes are compared and expanded upon during the listening experience. Additional listening sessions are added as needed. Before each session, speaker calibration is checked using an SPL meter and the test-tones on the receiver, in this case the Denon AVR-3805 .
Disc 1: The Coming of the Martians
1) The Eve of War
2) Horsell Common and the Heat Ray
4) The Artillerymen and the Fighting Machine
4) Forever Autumn
5) Thunder Child
Disc 2: The Earth Under the Martians
1) The Red Weed (part 1)
2) The Spirit of Man
3) The Red Weed (part 2)
4) Brave New World
5) Dead London
Late '70's rock/disco combo. Lots of great voiceover work by the late Richard Burton tells the abbreviated tale of H.G. Wells', The War of the Worlds. Originally released in 1978, vocalists include Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), David Essex (Godspell), Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann's Earth Band), and Julie Covington (Evita). You may not recognize all the names, but many of you will recognize the voices. It's a virtual who's who of late '70's talent.
One thing to look for (or more accurately, listen for) when evaluating Audio Quality is depth. An album may have an instrument or vocal that is particularly clear or lifelike, but everything else is muddy and flat. This is definitely not the case here. Jeff Wayne's creation is nothing short of amazing in its detail and clarity. Yes, it is chock full of electronic instruments and yes there are more than a few disco beats supporting (or undercutting, however you look at it) the melodies, but, through it all, there is an honesty to the original performances that rings through. Sit still and listen and you can pick out any of the instruments behind all the others and the vocals. It becomes a game after a while, listening to the music behind the music.
While many of the sounds are manufactured (electronically), you'll notice no compression. Each of the electronic sounds is as authentic and clear as the live instruments. The fact is, there is a lot of electronic music on this album, but there are just as many live instruments. Guitars and drums dominate many of the tracks and, even when they don't, they are clearly audible in a supporting role. In a way, it is unfortunate that this album was made in the late '70's. Some of the beats and melodies are so clearly influenced by the music of the era that it loses some of that timeless quality it may have had if it had been created at a different time.
Once you get past the datedness of the music, you'll find yourself impressed with the artist's ability to match the melodies and rhythms and the story. I am always impressed during the day after the Martian cylinder lands and the aliens are revealed, when the bass guitar starts up with a Jaws-like rhythm and I feel my heart beating a little faster. This is no soundtrack: the instruments and music take a role just as important to the story as any of the lyrics or voiceovers. The red Martian leaves waving in the wind, the terror of the British, the insanity of some of the survivors - all this and more is conveyed through the music.
One nice touch (and this may be more a product of the times than an artistic decision) was that the sound effects usually sounded like they were created with real instruments (then modified to sound more unreal if needed). I'm so used to realistic (relatively) sounding effects in movies nowadays that hearing an instrument simulating a sound effect at first took me aback. I expected explosions and laser blasts not a wailing, heavily distorted, guitar. After hearing it a few times, I felt it was more like Greek theater - all of the violence happens off stage. Having simulated sound effects allows the listener to superimpose their own imagination onto what is happening.
Vocal performances are absolutely stellar. I will say that some of the lyrics were a bit forced in order to support the story, but you can't fault the vocalists because of this. Looking over the cast, you've got to expect that you're not going to be disappointed with the singers or players. What really makes it though is how the recording keeps the vocalists performances front and center. Never are the vocals upstaged by the music.
Part of the joy of surround sound is that you are engulfed in the music, making you feel like you are part of the performance. There was a time, not too long ago, when people had that same sort of experience with two channel music. I spent much of my listening sessions with these discs checking and re-checking whether or not my receiver had somehow kicked on a surround mode. The two-channel implementation of this album sounded as good as many and better than some surround specific recordings.
God help you if you don't have speakers with adequate imaging ability. I found myself clearly able to pinpoint instruments and sound effects in three dimensions. I haven't had this sort of experience with a two-channel recording in a long time. I look on some of those websites with people showing off their $100k+ two-channel setups and I think, Why spend all that on just two channel? Don't they know what they are missing with surround? Well, this album is a prime example of why two-channel still has its followers.
Using two channels rather than 5 or 6 does not make instrument placement any less important or difficult. There was, for example, tons of side to side movement (and front to back to my tricked senses). Instruments and sounds were anchored in a speaker or placed somewhere in-between. Always, the placement or movement complimented and augmented the story and the music. You can't ask for more than that.
Every era has its foibles, though the 70's tended to take so much to the extreme that there are few things we collectively don't wince at when reminded. Movies are all but unwatchable ( Xanadu anyone?), disco is barely music, and fashion *shudder* left a lot to be desired. This is not to say that the '70's were a total waste. Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds is just such an example. While it is unfortunate that the era in which this album was created dates the music, the underlying construction is sound. You will find yourself humming these songs long after you press stop. While you may have painful flashbacks of leisure suits, hairy chests covered in gold chains, and huge collars, you'll soon be so drawn into the music that you won't care.